The Old Dark House (1932)

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

James Whale

Starring

Boris Karloff Charles Laughton Melvyn Douglas

Anticipation.

From James Whale, the director of Bride of Frankenstein.

Enjoyment.

A chilling romp – expertly orchestrated scares with a humorous camp undertow.

In Retrospect.

Don’t go up in the attic!

One of the first and best haunted house movies receives a welcome re-release.

If you had to locate the cinematic ur-text of haunted house movies, James Whale’s fruity bone-rattler from 1932, The Old Dark House, would likely be in contention. Enough time had passed for the conventions of the genre to be gently skewered, but the conceit was still ripe enough to be taken in a number of new and exciting directions.

It begins as it should, on a rain-lashed evening in Wales. Three travellers are braving the road to Shrewsbury, but a landslide blocks their path and forces them to seek refuge in a sinister-looking country stack. After initially being turned away by catatonic and deformed butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff), they are invited in by Ernest Thesiger’s wiry fusspot Horace Femm and his mad-eyed older sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore).

As the travellers merely attempt to survive through the night with whatever scant comforts available, it appears that their hosts are experiencing undue discomfort as a result of this nighttime imposition. The electric fails and the lights go out. Morgan hits the drink too hard. Locked doors and secret rooms are discovered. The Femm’s macabre family saga is unfurled. Whale recreates the blustery Welsh countryside in an LA backlot with a fusty attention to detail.

He goes easy on the pyrotechnics and jump scares, opting instead for an all-pervading sense of grotesque and perversity. In one sequence when Rebecca is delivering a mad monologue detailing her strict conservative worldview, the camera pulls away from her face and refracts the image through a warped mirror. The sudden effect is terrifying in and of itself, but also acts as a visual harbinger for things to come. This new restoration offers a vital reminder of the film’s visual ingenuity and carefully calibrated atmospherics.

Published 27 Apr 2018

Tags: Boris Karloff Charles Laughton James Whale

Anticipation.

From James Whale, the director of Bride of Frankenstein.

Enjoyment.

A chilling romp – expertly orchestrated scares with a humorous camp undertow.

In Retrospect.

Don’t go up in the attic!

Read More

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

By Glenn Heath Jr

Jean Cocteau’s ravishing and erotic masterwork is restored as part of BFI’s huge survey of Gothic cinema.

review

Eight films to watch before you see The Shape of Water

By Josh Slater-Williams

Seek out these inspirations for Guillermo del Toro’s latest, including The Red Shoes and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

M (1931)

By David Jenkins

This tale of a wily German child murderer from legendary director Fritz Lang is still one of the all-time greats.

review LWLies Recommends

What are you looking for?

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design